Matthew David Stewart is the fourth inmate to apparently kill himself at Weber County Jail in the past six months.
"I've been practicing in Weber County the last 22, 21 years, and I've never seen a rash like this," said attorney James Retallick, who represented Jeffrey Dean White before the inmate hung himself in November. In December, Ieve Dominguez killed himself, also by hanging. In January, Justin Tilley committed suicide, according to the Standard-Examiner.
At the jail's request, investigators from the Utah Department of Public Safety (DPS) will probe Stewart's death, according to Dwayne Baird, DPS spokesman.
The investigation will focus on what the staff knew and reasonably could have done to prevent Stewart's death, said Gary DeLand of the Utah Sheriff's Association, who had previously been commander of the Salt Lake County Jail and head of the Utah Department of Corrections. He's also been an expert witness or litigation consultant in more than 200 inmate death cases nationwide.
"Suicide is a tough case to prevent," DeLand said. "It can happen without us having knowledge it's about to happen. You can't stop what you don't anticipate."
An inmate has the advantage over jail staff about when and how to follow through with suicide, and only has to be successful once, whereas staff have to be successful at prevention every time, DeLand said.
Weber County Sheriff Terry Thompson said jail staff are trained to look for suicidal behavior in inmates and are usually successful in preventing such deaths. But suicide is a problem inside and out of jail, and deserves more focus, he said.
"Suicides within correctional facilities are a microcosm of our society," Thompson said.
He said protocol and policy were followed before Stewart's death, and that hourly visual checks were done. Stewart refused help from a mental health professional, Thompson said.
After the fact, it's difficult to prove that a jail was at fault because it requires evidence that staff knew the inmate was a suicide risk and did nothing to prevent it, said attorney Alyson Carter. Her firm, Robert B. Sykes & Associates, has handled a number of inmate deaths, including that of Amra Miletic, a Bosnian refugee whose heart stopped after she suffered from rectal bleeding and other symptoms over a period of weeks in 2011 while on an immigration hold at the jail.
Rachel Sykes, who is handling Miletic's case, alleged Friday that the Weber jail has "a lot of problems" after researching complaints about how the facility handled Immigration and Customs Enforcement inmates, including not checking on them often enough. ICE pulled its inmates out of the jail a few months after Miletic died and slapped the jail with a federal audit which found a long list of violations.
Sykes could not speak specifically to Stewart's death, though she added that several deaths in the past six months "is very alarming."
Retallick took the news of Stewart's suicide hard: He is close friends with the dead man's father, Michael Stewart.
Matthew Stewart had been depressed since the day he was booked into jail, Retallick said. White had been suicidal since day one, too.
When his client was booked, Retallick said a detective filed a document saying the man should not be allowed to make bail because he would be a threat to himself if he was released. He hanged himself three weeks later.